So Shines the Phoenix
Holy Innocents' Day, December 28th, 1384
The man with the long white beard sat hunched on a wooden bench in his study, a stone’s throw from the parish church of St. Mary’s in Lutterworth. He was wrapped in a thick woollen cloak that masked his thin frame and kept out the worst of the biting cold, and on his head he wore a flat cloth cap. Spread before him on a well-worn oak table was a book, the thin vellum pages recently bound and stitched in secret.
Only he knew how many months it had taken him to write the chapters lovingly by hand, trusting the eternal truth he believed they contained. Hour by hour and day by day he had sat on this bench and copied studiously from the only other book of its kind that was still in his possession. This was a precious work of art, beautifully ornamented and coloured and yet still, after all these years’ labour, not completely translated from Latin to English. But now at last he had copied it word for word, and this copy would be a gift for someone else.
He leant over wearily, the left side of his body weakened by a stroke that had disabled him two years before, and reached for his quill. He dipped it in the inkwell, opened the book cover and scratched inside it in an unsteady hand. It was too dangerous to write the recipient’s name, for he would surely be found and condemned, but he could make some mark that only the messenger would understand.
He blew gently on the ink to dry it, closed the cover and kissed the book. Slowly he rose and fetched a small wooden box belted with straps of iron, and tenderly placed the book inside. He paused a moment to pray and then closed the lid and locked it with a small iron key. Stepping outside into the winter chill, he drew his cloak closer around him, concealing the box, and pulled the hood over his head. He made his way towards the churchyard, walking slowly and carefully on the uneven path, which was already smattered with Christmastide snow. A steady stream of villagers was heading to mass. He bowed his head in acknowledgement of one or two of them, and then went into the vestry to change.
This small room had always been a favourite of his ever since he had taken up the parsonage of the church; it was a place to pray and calm oneself before ministering to God and the assembled congregation. He had spent many hours there, and knew the secrets of the room. Closing the door behind him he took the box and placed it on the floor. He knelt down stiffly and pushed his fingers against a small wooden panel in the wall. It slid easily under his touch, revealing an opening just large enough to receive the locked box. With another prayer he slid the panel shut, climbed unsteadily to his feet, and breathed a sigh of relief. The book was at last safe, and only he knew where it was hidden.
The congregation had all but filled the pews, a people expectant and willing to hear the great man speak. He was something of a champion, this man who had withstood persecution for his beliefs. He had experienced so much, and had been sorely tried and tested, and so his sermons were always a challenge to the hearer. He coughed dryly to clear his throat and rose slowly from his seat and made ready to speak. He began to read, his voice clear but with a broad Oxfordshire accent, and he read in English, not Latin.
“O almighty God, who out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast ordained strength…”
He paused mid-sentence and screwed up his eyes in pain. He loosened his grip and the book dropped to the floor with a heavy thud as a terrible agony swept through his head and the church around him blurred. He felt himself fall, as if floating and tumbling into a deep well, and then blackness. He slumped to the floor as the stroke took effect.
A gasp went up from the congregation. Someone ran forward, and then another, and soon a small crowd had gathered around him, flustering and shouting at each other. They tried to rouse him, but to no avail. Then a chair was brought and upon this they carried him from the church and back through the graveyard to his cottage. Two days later, on December 30th, 1384 John Wyclif was dead, and his secret died with him. Or so it was thought.
Chapter 1 - The Hound of Hell
Tuesday February 21st 1401
"Don't do that, you'll rile him!" Adam hissed angrily at his younger brother. He turned his head to stare at him, his steely blue eyes flashing with annoyance and just the slightest hint of fear. Richard laughed and rattled the stick one more time on the wooden fence.The bull mastiff growled deep in its throat, a long low rumble that chilled the bones. Its eyes narrowed and fixed on the two young men. It was tethered by a long rusty chain to a post that had been hammered into the frozen ground, and as it now rose to its feet the chain clanked heavily on the hardened earth.
Adam Wolvercot took a step backwards. "Look what you've done now!"
Richard looked at him in amazement. "Ha! He's just that old bear-baiter. Look at his scars and the way he limps. He'll not bother us, he’s chained up." In defiance he rattled the stick once more.
The dog growled again, this time more forcefully, its breath visible in the cold morning air. Then, without warning, it charged towards them barking loudly. The chain tightened around its neck, yanking it back and flipping the dog onto its side with a dull thud. It yelped in pain and clambered to its feet again. Both brothers jumped back into the road, their hearts beating fast. Richard laughed once more. "See, I told you! That chain will hold." He put his hand on his older brother’s shoulder as if to calm him. "Come on, let’s go. Don’t be such a coward."
The dog was now barking incessantly. Over and over again it leapt towards them, only to be floored each time by the chain around its neck. A white foamy froth dripped from its jowls.
"Let's go! Run!" shouted Adam above the noise. He started off at pace up the road, his thin leather soles scratching on the frost hardened mud. Richard followed, a little slower and a lot more carelessly. He wasn't afraid of a chained up guard dog.
The road they were on ran alongside the old manor house, which was guarded by the bull mastiff, and then wound gently on past a handful of single storey hovels. Wisps of smoke curled upwards from soot-stained holes in the thatch, and slowly merged together to form a grey shroud that blotted out the pale winter sun. The ancient village of Wolvercot then petered out and gave way to common land that had been used for as long as anyone could remember for grazing cattle and geese.
And it was for these geese that Adam Wolvercot and his brother Richard were searching on this frosty morning in February 1401. Or rather they were searching for their feathers. Goose feathers made excellent fletches for arrows, the feathers plucked from the same wing so that they would all curve in the same direction and spin the arrow in flight. There were always plenty to be found on the common, having dropped out as the birds moulted, or left in a ragged pile after a kill.
Adam was a good archer in a time when all young men were encouraged to shoot for sport and in preparation for battle. From the age of seven he had begun to master the longbow, practising with other children alongside the men every Sunday after church. Then every weekday between chores he would load and fire, load and fire, until his muscles tired and his shoulders ached. But through all this he now had an innate sense of where to aim. He no longer needed to look along the arrow for sight; he just kept his eyes on the target and let the familiarity of his movements direct the shot.
His longbow was the pride of his few possessions. Made of Mediterranean yew and capped with a yellowing horn that was notched to take the string, it was beautifully supple and had seen service in the wars in France. It was well worn and had a smoothness to it that came from years of handling. And it had been gifted to him by his father before he died. That was ten years ago when he was just 13. A young man coming of age.
His one other prized possession hung on a string around his neck. It was a small iron key that his father had called the ‘Key of the Kingdom’. It came with a warning never to let it out of his sight.
“The Key of the Kingdom,” repeated Adam as his father placed it over his head, “will that make me a king one day, like our King Richard? He is only a little older than I am. Perhaps I too could rule the country like him. Will the key help me do that?”
“Perhaps, perhaps,” replied Jacob with a smile. “Perhaps it will and perhaps it will not, but come a day when it will save many lives. Never lose it; never tell anyone of it, for it must remain a secret until it is called for.”
“And how will I know when that time comes?” asked Adam.
“You will know.” Jacob de Wolvercot looked deeply into the eyes of his son and held back a tear. “You will know,” he whispered.
Adam fingered the key, now hidden beneath his tunic. It was warm where it had lain on his chest, and it seemed so familiar that it had almost become a part of him. He had never once removed it from his neck in all those years.
Though painful times had struck him, and so many loved ones had been lost, he never forgot the words his father had spoken that night so long ago. “It will not keep you from evil”, his father had said, “and it may even bring evil to you.” Yet to Adam this small key had become almost a talisman, keeping him safe. Somewhere deep inside it even gave him hope. To be a king? Could that be possible? Would he grow up to just be a simple farmer like his brother and his friends, or was there something more?
“Look,” cried out Richard.
Adam jolted from his thoughts. “What?”
“Look over there. In the rough grass under that tree. I think it’s a dead goose. There will be plenty of feathers to pluck and maybe meat for the pot.” He pointed to a clump of white and grey that was half hidden by a bank of long damp grass.
They ran to where the mangled creature lay, its neck broken and its body ripped and bloody.
“Probably killed by a dog or fox,” said Adam, “I wonder why it’s not been eaten.”
Richard grinned, “Well, the fox’s loss is our gain. Let’s take it home and we’ll eat meat tonight.”
Adam looked about him furtively to see if anyone was about, and then quickly opened the drawstring on his bag and thrust the dead goose inside. He checked once more that no-one had seen. But the common was quiet on that cold winter morning and nothing stirred around them. The pair started on the way home, Richard leading the way, his stick in hand, and Adam following on behind, the heavy bag slung over his shoulder, now dreaming of a hot stew.
The dog heard them before they saw him. It smelt their stale odour on the wind and then caught the smell of the dead goose. A gobbet of sticky saliva hung from its mouth, and it bared its yellow teeth. As the pair approached, it raised its head and then lumbered to its feet and growled once more, a low rumble that came from the back of the throat. It yanked at the chain. The post it was tied to moved very slightly in the icy ground.
Richard swung his stick and tapped it on the road as he walked. He was happy and content and began to sing a rude minstrel song that had suddenly come to mind. The mastiff lurched forward, tightening the chain around its neck and tugging at the post. It loosened a fraction more, but still the dog was held. Then, with one final effort, it hurled itself at them. The chain tautened and strained and then, with a loud crack, the wooden post flew out of the earth.
Adam and Richard froze for an instant in disbelief, then turned and ran for their lives. The dog bounded after, dragging the heavy chain and post behind. Adam could hear the clanking of iron on the icy road drawing ever closer. His smooth leather soles slipped on the hard and rutted mud, throwing him off-balance and making it difficult for him to run faster. Ahead he could see the great oak, the old tree that for centuries had been the playground of many a young boy in the village. If only he could make it there he would be safe. His heart pounded within his chest.
Richard ran on ahead, racing for his life. He dived at the tree, scrabbled his foot onto a low branch, and swung himself up. “Throw me the goose,” he shouted.
Adam turned his head to see the dog closing in on him, its teeth bared. He grabbed the bag from his shoulder and swung it towards the tree. As the heavy goose left his hand, he overbalanced and his foot slid on a patch of ice. His ankle twisted and he fell clumsily to the ground. The mastiff closed in on him, hungry for the kill. Adam cried out. All of a sudden the wooden post that was dragging behind the dog bounced high and became entangled in the branches of a thorn bush. For an instant the mastiff stopped. It twisted and pulled. Then there was the cracking of a branch and the post flew free. But this was all the time Adam needed. Somehow he clambered to his feet again and limped the last few feet to the tree. The dog snapped at his heels.
“Grab hold,” cried Richard, reaching his arm down for Adam to catch. As their hands met he pulled, and Adam was jerked up into the bough. The bull mastiff leapt high and clamped its jaws around Adam’s twisted right ankle. It hung there, its teeth ripping through his hose and the thin flesh inside, its full weight tearing at the bone. Adam screamed in agony. Richard swung the stick and struck the dog a blow across its head. It yelped and let go, falling to the ground, where it leaped and snarled at them.
Richard quickly pulled his brother up higher to safety. Blood dripped from Adam’s damaged leg onto the frozen ground below. He gently prodded his blood soaked ankle with his finger and winced. “Hell’s teeth! I think it’s broken.” He squeezed his shin with his strong hands trying to stop the searing pain rising further up his leg. “What do we do now?”
Richard looked around. They were safe in the tree for the moment, but the bull mastiff was still scrabbling at the trunk and trying as best it could to reach them. It showed no signs of giving up the chase. Nobody was about, and the chill February air began to penetrate their shaken bones.
“Throw the goose to him.” Adam’s voice cut through the barking.
“Are you mad? How many days has it been since we had meat?”
“I don’t care! Just throw the goose!” shouted Adam. “Please, just get the dog away.”
Richard looked at the goose and then at the pain on his brother’s face and realised he had no option. He pulled the dead bird from the bag and then, holding it by the neck, he swung it back and forward, gaining momentum. With a final thrust, he let go and the goose curved through the air and landed with a dull thud some distance away. The mastiff heard it land and caught its scent. It turned from the tree and lumbered over to the bird, sniffed it and then tore into it hungrily.
“Quick! Down!” whispered Adam. Richard clambered over him and jumped the last few feet to the ground. Adam twisted in the branches, keeping his injured foot clear, then dropped down. He flinched in pain as he hit the ground, and clamped his jaw tight, trying not to cry out. Richard pulled him up and ducked his head under his arm to support him. With one last glance at the dog that was now ripping the goose apart, the brothers hobbled homeward.
It was the next day that the fever hit. Adam’s mother had washed and then bound his ankle with an old cloth torn into strips. She fed him a warm broth and told him to rest. He had slept fitfully, tossing and turning and trying to ignore the throbbing pain from his leg. And then, as dawn broke, the fever began. Every joint in his body burned with an intense fire, and he shivered and shook even though covered in thick blankets. His mind wandered through hazy mists, in and out of consciousness.
There was a knock at the door. Isabel rose from her place next to her son and quietly crossed the room to open it. “Oh, it’s you. What do you want?” she said, her voice full of poison.
The pretty girl waiting outside lowered her eyes. “I thought I might see him. I heard he was ill.”
Isabel looked her up and down, unable to disguise her disapproval.
“And what is it to you if he is?” she said.
“I … I just thought … perhaps I could help…” The girl raised her eyes a little in the hope that she would find mercy.
“Oh, you did, did you? And how might you do that, I wonder? Do you think that I cannot give him all the help he needs? Am I not able…”
“Hush, mother!” Richard’s voice cut through the darkness of the room, “Let her come in if she so wishes, she can’t do any more harm than has already been done”.
Isabel grunted and turned from the door, her back to the girl.
Agneta stepped gingerly across the threshold and waited a moment for her eyes to adjust to the gloom. She glanced around the room, making out the few pieces of plain furniture that lined the walls. Finally her eyes alighted on the mound of blankets on the pallet in the corner. Adam stirred beneath them and let out a moan. Agneta took a step towards him, her heart thumping, but then caught herself and stopped. She needed to remember where she was.
Isabel seated herself on the low wooden stool next to the bed. “Richard, bring me a damp cloth.”
Agneta watched as Richard soaked a rag in a basin of cold water, wrung it out and handed it to his mother. Isabel laid it gently on Adam’s forehead, patting it down with her fingers.
Richard walked over to Agneta, who seemed frozen to the spot with fear. He pressed softly in the middle of her back, urging her forward. She took a hesitant step towards the bed, watching Isabel for any sign of threat, but Isabel did not take her eyes off her son. Agneta drew closer then stopped and stood awkwardly at the bedside. She looked from Isabel’s hard features to the fevered yet handsome face of her Adam. Her eyes began to fill.
“Stop snivelling, girl,” muttered Isabel. “It will do you no good, nor him either.”
“I just want him to be well.”
“Oh, and I know why that would be.”
Agneta reddened. “I should not have come.” She spoke in no more than a whisper.
“No, you should not.” Isabel’s voice was sharp. It cut the air.
Agneta could take no more. Suddenly she turned and ran for the door, desperately trying to hide the sob that was rising from within. She flung the door open and ran outside. Richard chased after her and caught her up a few yards down the road. He reached out his arm to grab her, but she pushed him away. “Leave me! Let me go!” she cried, and wiped the tears from her cheeks with her hand. “Please, just go.”
“Agneta, I am so sorry. Just ignore her, she has no right to talk to you like that.”
“Doesn’t she? How do you know?”
Richard looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. Now leave me. I had best be away home.” Agneta stepped away from him and headed down the road, still wiping her face.
“He loves you, you know,” Richard called after her. She hesitated for just a moment, then continued down the street.
The fever continued for two more days. Isabel and Richard never left his side; there was always one of them watching and praying over him. At times he woke briefly with a start and cried out, at others he seemed to slip from them into another world. He dreamt of wild beasts and fire, of ice and storms. He dreamt of Agneta. Isabel kept a cold damp cloth on his head to stem the raging temperature, and checked his ankle often for signs of healing. The swelling began to go, and the raw ripped flesh caked over with a dry brown crust. And then, on the third day and quite suddenly, the heat in his body abated and he woke with a shiver. He opened his eyes and tried to focus through the gloom. Someone moved, a blurred body close to him. His mother reached out her hand and stroked his forehead.
“Hello, my son,” she said tenderly. “Welcome back.”